Agnes Scott College

BU Math Professor's Life Filled with Firsts

By Catherine Cantwell, Waco Tribune-Herald, February 26, 1986

Reprinted with permission of the Waco Tribune-Herald.

In the classroom, Vivienne Malone Mayes is a rarity.

She is the only black math professor at Baylor University and one of a handful of black professors in the entire university.

She is one of three women among the 14 tenured professors in the math department.

But Ms. Mayes is used to being somewhat isolated.

As a doctoral student in the mid-1960s at the University of Texas--where she was the second black, and the first black woman, to receive a doctorate in math--she said other students, mostly male and white, virtually ignored her during the first summer session.

She went to University of Texas after her application for admission to graduate school at Baylor was rejected. But after graduating, she was the first black, male or female, to be hired at Baylor and put on the tenure track.

She was the first black to serve on the executive committee of the national Association for Women in Mathematics.

This year, as she celebrates her 20th year of teaching at Baylor, Ms Mayes says she has seen a lot of firsts and a lot of changes.

"I never dreamed when I was a child that things would have changed so much when I was a young adult," she said. The civil rights movement was at its height during the years she was in graduate school, 1962-66, and she recalls joining picket lines to force restaurants and movie theaters to admit blacks.

"Attitudes have changed so much," she said. "When I made a low grade, I felt I'd let down 11 million people. That's a heavy burden. Every professor stereotyped blacks by my performance. You felt like you had no choice but to excel."

She said fellow black students often took courses two or three times to make an A because they wouldn't be satisfied with a C.

Although she is pleased that young blacks today do not have to feel that responsibility, she said sometimes they don't try hard enough.

Ms. Mayes has a number of interests and activities. She is the legal guardian for two Hispanic children who live with her--one in elementary school, the other in high school-- and she has a grown daughter who lives in Dallas.

She serves as the director and organist for New Hope Baptist Church choir.

Ms. Mayes was one of 40 Waco women named as Pathfinders last fall by the Women's Issues Forum of the Young Women's Christian Association on behalf of her accomplishments.

She attended segregated schools while she was growing u and graduated from More High School in Taco. She received a bachelor's and master's degree from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., one of the most prestigious black colleges at that time.

She chaired the math department at Paul Quinn College for seven years and at Bishop College for one year before deciding to take math courses in graduate school to "refresh herself."

Her application was rejected at Baylor and she said she still has the letter she received that spelled out the university's segregation policy.

"It was a blessing, really," she said. "If they'd accepted me at Baylor, I would have just taken a few courses and not pursued a doctorate."

Baylor does not offer a doctorate in mathematics. So she took summer courses at the University of Texas and became inspired to pursue a doctorate. After attending UT one summer and seeing others pursuing doctorates, she began to consider the idea.

"The first summer gave me the courage to continue, especially after I succeeded," she said. After the first summer, she taught another year and then quit her job to pursue a degree full time.

The math profession was predominantly male as well as white when she began her career. When the women's movement gained momentum, more women joined the profession, but now the number is again lagging behind the men.

"I always feel like so many of the things that you think are bad when they're happening, can turn into things that are good," she said.